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In the March/April issue of MIT Technology Review, Kai-Fu Lee writes that the displacement of human labour by AI “will be the fastest transition humankind has experienced, and we’re not ready for it” (p. 9). He takes AI companies to task for “pretending AI won’t destroy jobs”, and criticizes every level of the world’s economic and political leadership for failing to prepare to soften the blow of the coming dislocation of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people.

Interestingly, however, some of his most pointed ire is reserved for advocates of universal basic income (UBI) schemes, which are often touted as a possible solution to the displacement of large numbers of workers. These, he notes, don’t “address people’s loss of dignity or meet their need to feel useful”. UBI advocates have, he charges, merely proposed “a convenient way … to sit back and do nothing”.

My own study of history leads me to think that the best-case scenarios of UBI advocates will not come to pass, and that the results of the AI revolution are much more likely to be mass poverty and civil unrest. What interests me, however, is not prognostication. Far more important to understanding the looming crisis is not whether or not great swathes of people will continue to eat, but understanding why, when we allow ourselves to postulate a best-case scenario in which they do, we imagine their resulting lives as empty.

We should be clear… Lee is not proposing that the displaced will be made up of workers from small family businesses or farms—people whose work is directly tied to the welfare of those near and dear to them in ways that go beyond keeping money in their checking accounts. Nor is he talking about social workers or teachers—people who work face-to-face with others in the “caring professions”. He is not talking about craftspeople who produce fine products born of their skill, dedication, and love, nor about people in leadership roles who feel a responsibility to those who depend on their vision and their guidance. No, he is not speaking of any of these fortunates.

Instead, very specifically, he is talking about people working for corporations able to afford large-scale capital investments in AI technology for “areas like customer service, telemarketing, assembly lines, reception desks, truck driving, and other routine blue-collar and white-collar work”—ie, the descendants of the very same people who were forced into menial labour in the overcrowded cities when a previous wave of technological change displaced them from the land.

That wave of (primarily) nineteenth-century urbanization was perhaps one of the clearest and most startling stages of development in what the Madrians termed the ‘primacy of the Agora’ under patriarchy. The Agora (from the name of the central square in Greek cities where public business was done) was for them the domain of what we usually term ‘politics’ and ‘business’. For the Madrians, this was properly a peripheral space, defined by the transactions and interactions of households (Hestias), which, in a matriarchal society (they argued) are the properly central institutions. The Hestia, in Madrian thought, is home to the real business of life—the worship of God at the household shrine, the raising and education of children, the plying of small-scale agriculture and cottage industry as outlets for sacred craft. The Agora’s role is (or should be) a limited support, like the medieval market town that swelled in size and importance only a few times a year to support religious festivals, commerce, marriage negotiations, and the like, only to resume again its proper proportions when the business of the season was through.

In Madrian thought, the rise of the Agora to ascendancy in the culture is one of the chief effects of the patriarchalization of a society. The outwardly-aimed affairs of the market and public square become an arena for the assertion of power and the gaining of prestige, while the inwardly-focused affairs of the home and the hearth recede into the background, eventually becoming little more than a domain of unpaid labour conceived as a support to the Agora. The shift in mentality is subtle, but it is evident when one listens carefully to the rhetoric of such a society. It is no longer that the Agora is thought of as a space that allows the farmer to trade for a toy for her child, but that the Hestia is thought of as a space that produces children to supply the workforce of the Agora.

Can there be any doubt that we have reached a rather extreme stage of this when the thought of devoting eight or more hours a day in which the Agora no longer needs us to instead keeping our homes, tending ourselves, raising our children, and growing in our spiritual, artistic, and intellectual pursuits is not enough to meet our “need to feel useful”?

Works Cited

Lee, Kai-Fu. (March/April 2018). “Tech companies should stop pretending AI won’t destroy jobs.” MIT Technology Review: 8-9.